Please Just Say What You Mean

By Greg Nathan posted October 10, 2023

Have you been “nature bathing” lately? Or are you suffering from ”boreout”? I recently heard these terms used to describe normal everyday experiences. The first referred to taking a walk in the park. The second to being continually bored at work.

Why people love Apple

I am a little embarrassed to say they were both invented by psychologists who, along with business consultants and “thought leaders”, seem to be masters at making the simple complex. On the other hand, the reason why Apple is such a well-loved brand is its commitment to simplicity. If you watch Founder, Steve Jobs, in his famous 2007 speech introducing the iPhone, he talks about how it uses the best pointing device in the world, your finger. And the button that takes you back to the home screen is simply called the home button.

Why do we need to introduce ridiculous words and complex concepts when plain English is clearer? For instance, instead of “dialoguing” or “socialising” an idea, how about we just discuss it. Rather than sharing your “learnings”, I’d be more interested in hearing what you learned. And instead of incessantly “moving forward”, how about we just let our progress speak for itself.

By the way, I do appreciate that people who work together in specialised fields find it useful to create or use words that describe unique concepts or pieces of equipment. A tradesperson might ask for a “chase” rather than ask a colleague to dig them out a trench into a piece of plaster. And when exploring data with my team, I might ask what the “N”, the “r” or the “alpha” is, instead of asking “How big was the sample?”, “What was the correlation coefficient?” or “What was the level of statistical significance?”

How to know if someone knows

It's when someone uses a lot of jargon when they’re not talking to colleagues that I get suspicious. Are they trying to make themselves look superior, or smarter than they really are? Are they trying to confuse others so they can take advantage of them? Or are they innocently unaware of how they are confusing their listeners?

Either way, when someone is using double talk, I ask a simple question. “Could you please explain that for me in plain English?” How they respond will usually tell me which of these three motivations is at play.

Those who are trying to make themselves look smart tend to respond with more gibberish. Those who are wanting take advantage of the situation will look at you like you’re stupid and say something like, “Well what specifically don’t you understand?” And those who are well intentioned will apologise and re-explain it in simple language.

A test of whether someone genuinely knows their stuff is whether they can explain it simply in a way that makes sense to anyone who is interested. My commitment to this vital concept in human communication was firmly set many years ago when I attended a conference of psychologists and human resources professionals.

How I overcame my imposter syndrome

I had just started my consulting business after working for 12 years as a franchisee and a franchisor executive in the very practical baking industry, and thought it was time to brush up on the latest concepts. As the conference got underway, I quickly started to feel like an impostor who did not deserve to be part of this esteemed audience, because I was finding it difficult to understand what people were talking about. 

As one of the presenters continued with their long, convoluted words, I quietly turned to the woman on my right and asked if she understood what this person was saying. To my relief, she put her hand over her mouth and chuckled, “Wouldn’t have a clue!” I then turned to the guy on my left and asked the same question. He tightened his lips and shook his head. “Can’t say I do”, he whispered in a slightly embarrassed tone.

At that moment I made a silent vow to never do that to an audience, nor would I allow any of my team to do this to a client. We have since embedded the principle of simplicity into our brand values, and we work hard to ensure that whatever we create makes sense to the people who will use it.

The culture behind the most successful company on Earth

If you want to be a clear communicator, each time you are about to explain or write something, ask yourself these three simple questions:

What am I wanting to say?

Why am I wanting to say it? (Is it to impress, to bamboozle, or to genuinely help?)

Am I using clear and simple language that will make sense to my listener or reader?

Back to Steve Jobs. In another talk when introducing their iconic ad campaign Think Different, a much younger Jobs describes Apple’s core value as a belief that people with passion can change the world for the better. He also famously said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

When you consider that Apple is consistently rated as the most successful company in the world on all the measures that matter, I reckon he was onto something.

Until next time, let’s keep it simple and say what we mean,

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